Naftali Bennett Knows What's Wrong With You

We live in confusing times. The world has never been more complex or more complicated. Information overload is all around us, overwhelming our senses and making it hard to find a center of gravity. Separating real news from fake news is an all-encompassing task, making it hard for people to figure out what it is that they really think. Say, for instance, that you are a Diaspora Jew who is feeling disaffected from Israel, and you think it is because of actions being taken by the Israeli government or what Israel has come to represent through its policies. Unbeknownst to you, however, you are wrong. Luckily for you, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett knows that you are wrong and is delighted to tell you what is really bothering you (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the Israeli government). Thank God we Diaspora Jews have such a wonderful guide to lead us out of the desert of our addled minds and into the promised land of objective truth!

At Sunday’s Israeli cabinet meeting, Bennett spoke about the crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and insisted that, despite what Diaspora Jews say, discontent toward Israel has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israeli attitudes toward Jewish pluralism. Instead, according to Bennett, it stems from assimilation and apathy about Jewish identity and connection to Israel. In other words, the Israeli government is a passive bystander when it comes to the cause and effect relationship; Israel has done nothing to weaken its own standing among Diaspora Jews, but is suffering the fallout of Jews not taking their Jewishness seriously enough. Assimilated Jews do not care about their Judaism and do not feel any natural connection to Israel, and that is what is driving the rift. It is no accident that Bennett uses the term apathy to describe what he sees as the independent variable, since describing Diaspora Jews as apathetic necessarily writes any Israeli agency out of this story, whereas using more actively emotional terms – anger, sadness, betrayal, opposition – would be to suggest that perhaps Israel’s actions have played a role in this divide. So there you go, dear Diaspora Jewish readers: you are not taking your Jewish identity and Jewish practice seriously enough. And really, who is better placed to diagnose this problem than the Israeli minister assigned to oversee affairs relating to you, despite the fact that he does not share the general values or political beliefs of an overwhelming majority of you and seems to have little respect for or understanding of the diaspora at all?

It is by now de rigeur to see these types of statements from Bennett, but what makes it particularly fascinating this time is that Bennett has spent the past week warding off personal attacks constructed around the same faulty premise of Jewish identity that he is himself employing. In the course of reporting on the Case 4000 bribery affair into Prime Minister Netanyahu, it emerged that Netanyahu sought to have the Walla news portal report that Bennett’s wife Gilat had worked as a chef at a non-kosher restaurant. The reasoning for doing so was obvious; it would be an attempt to politically damage a Netanyahu rival by planting the idea in the public’s perception that Bennett’s family – and by extension Bennett himself – does not take its Judaism seriously. Bennett’s understandably furious response was to describe his wife as coming from a secular and principled family and to emphasize that they have together built a wonderful Zionist and religious home. But the takeaway here is that immediately after his wife was attacked for being insufficiently Jewish based on a subjective and arbitrary standard, Bennett turned around and did the exact same thing to half of the world’s Jews. If anyone should know that there is no arbiter of what it means to have a Jewish identity – something that is intensely personal and subject to completely different interpretations on a case-by-case basis – and that weaponizing behavior to cast aspersions on others’ Jewish identity is out of bounds, it is Bennett.

The bigger problem here though is that Bennett is simply wrong. It blows apart the bounds of credulity to argue that the Israel-Diaspora divide is not at all driven by Israeli actions on a variety of fronts. Bennett wants to remove all politics from this equation, when in fact it is being driven in a major way by politics in the Israeli and American Jewish context. Not only is it being driven by politics, but Bennett has been at the forefront of embracing the politics of this relationship and doing his utmost best to politicize everything. To act as he has while simultaneously rejecting any role that Israeli policy has played in furthering the intercontinental divide is either sinisterly cynical or stunningly obtuse.

It is no secret that Israel’s relationship to President Trump has acted to disaffect many American Jews from Israel, and Bennett has led the charge in driving this relationship forward in a way that is maximally alienating on this side of the ocean. To take the most recent example, Bennett came to the U.S. after the Tree of Life shooting, an event that did more to unify American Jews in a common sense of identity and trajectory than any other. It was a stark example of David Myers’ argument that anti-Semitism is actually a key to Jewish survival and continuity by strengthening collective identity, and was reminiscent of how Israelis react to terrorism through a sense of shared community. Instead of recognizing this searing moment in the American Jewish consciousness for what it was, Bennett immediately turned it into an opportunity to stand up in defense of Trump and insert Israel into American Jewish politics in a completely unnecessary way. He then went to the Council on Foreign Relations and waved away American Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism. It all amounted to a jaw-dropping display of precisely how not to behave and how to alienate American Jews from Israel even further by putting Israel squarely on the record in ways that are noxious and offensive to most of them. Yet Bennett with a straight face now says that it has nothing to do with Israel – and this is before we even get to discussing Israeli government policies, rather than sticking to Israeli government rhetoric and politicking – and the Bayit Yehudi head wants to lay this all at the feet of insufficiently committed Jews.

It was reported on Tuesday that Birthright has experienced an unprecedented drop in participation rates this winter of 20 to 50 percent that is being driven by Americans not going on the trips. As with most things in life, this is undoubtedly multi-causal and cannot be attributed to only one single variable, but I do not think it is an accident that this is taking place in the midst of the Israeli government locking Trump in a bear hug and serving as his most ardent defender to American Jews. Perhaps Bennett is right that the problem between Israel and American Jews is one of apathy surrounding identity, but he has misidentified the culprit. So long as Bennett is apathetic to American Jewish identity and what American Jews hold dear, and refuses to take American Judaism seriously as an entity that exists independently, then he is right that apathy about identity is going to continue eating away at the bonds between American Jews and Israel.

Hanukkah’s Celebration of Assimilation

Everyone is familiar with the Hanukkah traditions of eating fried foods and giving presents, but there is a Hanukkah tradition nearly as strong among American Jews of bashing Hanukkah. While the celebration of Hanukkah is as lighthearted as Jewish ritual gets, the Hanukkah story makes many people uncomfortable. It is one of uncompromising religious zealotry, unapologetic nationalism, and a revolt centered around not only purification of the Second Temple but purification of Judaism by driving assimilated 2nd century BCE Jews out of the fold. Hanukkah is, on its face, a celebration of violence and religious fundamentalism, two things that most American Jews innately reject, and this inevitably leads to an annual round of anguished soul-searching about what exactly we are celebrating.

Over the weekend, Michael David Lukas contributed to the Hanukkah-skepticism genre in the New York Times in pointing out the hypocrisy of Hanukkah being the Jewish holiday most important to and celebrated by assimilated Jews despite it commemorating a war against assimilation. As Lukas writes, “the story of Hanukkah is based on a historical conflict between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews, the former being religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare, the latter being mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods…everyone agrees that the Maccabees won out in the end and imposed their version of Judaism on the formerly Hellenized Jews. So Hanukkah, in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism.” Lukas, a self-identified assimilated Jew, acknowledges the discomfort he has celebrating Hanukkah in light of this history but concludes that he is willing to continue embracing the anti-assimilation holiday if the alternative is getting a Christmas tree.

Hanukkah does indeed celebrate a group of religious fundamentalists who were infuriated by the widespread assimilation in Judean society and the support among the Jewish upper classes for the ruling Seleucids’ forced assimilation policies. It is true that the Maccabees wanted to impose their view of proper religious practice on their coreligionists, and that their vehicle for doing so was war and violence. If you end the Hanukkah story at the capture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple, then thinking of Hanukkah as the anti-assimilation holiday makes a lot of sense. But Lukas stopped too early. Despite the general accuracy of his account of the Hanukkah story, it is actually a lot more complicated once you keep on going and see what happened once the fundamentalists had won.

In the context of second century Palestine, assimilation could mean either actually becoming Greek – in other words, rejecting a Jewish identity entirely – or acting Greek while maintaining a Jewish cultural and religious identity. What the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans (the monarchical dynasty established by the Maccabees after their victory) were warring against was not the second type of assimilation, but the first. Once in power, the Hasmonean kings allowed for, and even embraced, the type of cultural assimilation that allowed Jews to maintain their Jewish identity while adopting many of the customs and mores of the wider eastern Mediterranean world. The Maccabee leaders themselves knew and spoke Greek, wrote documents in Greek, and later minted local coins (which was a distinctly Greek custom that earlier Judean kings had not done).

But where the tolerance for assimilation and a non-puritanical Judaism really manifested itself was in the Hasmonean effort to expand the population of Jews. One of the most controversial aspects of Hanukkah today is that the Hasmoneans expanded the boundaries of their kingdom and subjected the people they conquered to a choice of conversion or expulsion. This is indeed unsavory by today’s standards, but what gets lost in the understandable condemnation of forced conversions is that the Hasmoneans were trying to grow the number of Jews, but were not trying to police the Judaism they practiced. The conquered Samaritans, Idumeans, and Galileans had to pledge loyalty to the Temple in Jerusalem and cease any pagan idol worship, but they retained many of their local religious customs and their daily religious life remained different from what took place in Judea. In other words, what was important was that they considered themselves to be Jews and demonstrated their acceptance of a couple of core concepts, and not that they conformed their religious practice to the strict dictates of normative Jewish orthodoxy. Converting conquered peoples was about expanding Jewish identity and the population of Jews rather than about imposing a vision of religious zealotry and cracking down on assimilation. The new Jews were considered wholly Jewish by the old guard, and some of the non-Jewish customs that the conquered groups maintained – such as burying the dead in cave burial niches – even ended up spreading throughout the Jewish community.

Looked at this way, Hanukkah is actually not a story about a war on assimilation. It is a story about acceptance of assimilation as a way to maintain Jewish identity. Lukas’s ambivalence about celebrating Hanukkah is because he views the Maccabees’ battle as one directed at Jews like him. As he observes, “what am I if not a Hellenized Jew? I eat pork every so often. Before having children, my wife and I agonized over the question of circumcision. And while I’ve never offered burned sacrifices to Zeus, I do go to yoga occasionally. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me.” I’m actually not so sure. Lukas’s agonized internal debate is precisely because he cares about his Jewish identity and preserving that identity in his children. He is celebrating Hanukkah because he does not want to give in to the impulses his kids have to celebrate Christmas. In the language of the Hasmonean era, he wants to act Greek rather than become Greek. But it was the desire of Jews to become Greek that the Maccabees were combating, and part of their strategy for doing so was to create leeway for assimilated Jews to act Greek. Lukas is in some ways a triumph of the Hanukkah story rather than a cautionary tale.

American Jews observe rising intermarriage rates and alarming numbers of Jews who identify as having no religion, and have frenzied debates about how to preserve the American Jewish community. I don’t know that there is a definitive right answer, but it is worth reflecting during this Hanukkah season that the Maccabees – seen as the ultimate anti-assimilation warriors – understood that not all assimilation is created equal, and that some kinds of assimilation can even lead to a larger, stronger, and more vibrant Jewish community. If you are conflicted about celebrating Hanukkah because of the holiday’s underlying themes, remember that amidst the war, nationalism, and uncompromising religion, there is also a surprising and healthy dose of Jewish pluralism and a message that Jewish identity is more important than uniform Jewish practice.

Dr. Michael J. Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, based in Washington, DC. To contact Michael, please email him at

Rand Paul and Honest Conversations About the Palestinians

Senator Rand Paul has been causing a stir in the pro-Israel community due to his stance on military aid to Israel. Paul is a longstanding critic of American foreign aid in general, so it is no surprise that Israel – which is the beneficiary of the greatest amount of American largesse – has gotten caught in Paul’s battle. Paul has placed a hold on the bill that is intended to codify into legislation the ten year Memorandum of Understanding on American military aid to Israel reached between the Obama administration and the Israeli government in 2016, and Jewish Insider now reports that Paul is expected to try and limit the amount of aid under the legislation. AIPAC, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and other lobbying groups are naturally trying to get Paul to relent given the importance of support for Israel as a critical military ally of the U.S. But the real story here, which is not evident from the headlines, is not about Paul’s stance on Israel but about his stance toward the Palestinians, and demonstrates why the general lack of public forthrightness from the pro-Israel community regarding the Palestinians is hurting Israel in tangible ways.

Paul’s stated rationale for his objections to the U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018 is not that he believes Israel to be unworthy of American military assistance. It is that, in his own words, “it should be paid for by cutting the aid to people who hate Israel and America.” To quote Paul’s statement to Jewish Insider further, “Why are we giving twice as much money to nations that surround Israel, which forces Israel to spend more on defense? We have given billions to Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority. I’ve repeatedly introduced legislation to stop this, only to be opposed by AIPAC and others. Why are we giving one penny to people who hate America?” Paul also wants to reduce military aid to Israel over time in the same manner that economic assistance to Israel was downscaled annually until it was finally eliminated entirely, but the crux of his position on aid at the moment is that we should take away aid from states that are harming Israel’s security – specifically the Palestinian Authority – and by doing so save money on aid to Israel.

If you are Rand Paul, a staunchly conservative Republican senator, it is not surprising that you view the Palestinian Authority as Israel’s mortal enemy, or that you view security assistance to the Palestinians – which is the only remaining bucket of U.S. aid that goes to benefit them – as eroding Israel’s security. The discourse in the pro-Israel community, and particularly on the right, supports that point of view. In that telling, all Palestinians reject Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinian Authority is a terrorist organization led by terrorist mastermind Mahmoud Abbas, and there is no benefit to aiding the Palestinians in any way. It is how you get the original maximalist version of the Taylor Force Act, which contained no exceptions at all for humanitarian assistance and did not limit the aid cutoff to that which directly benefited the PA. It is how you get the Trump administration freezing all money going to infrastructure and humanitarian projects in the West Bank and Gaza that are administered and overseen by the U.S. itself, and now shuttering USAID in the West Bank and Gaza entirely. This is all driven by the rhetoric that treats the Palestinians as monolithic, as all supporting Hamas, as all wishing nothing more than to drive Israelis into the sea and conquer all of historical Palestine by force.

Those with a more nuanced understanding, including nearly all mainstream American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government, know this narrative is a caricature. Sophisticated observers know that not only is the PA not carrying out terrorist attacks – although it is certainly abetting them through its martyrs fund – but that it is a vital and cooperative security partner of Israel. It is conventionally accepted wisdom that the collapse of the PA would be a security nightmare for Israel, and neither the Israeli government nor the IDF want to have to take security control of Palestinian cities and towns. It is why the IDF, AIPAC, and other Jewish organizations have for years supported aid to the Palestinians, security and otherwise. But in the current political environment, where the political incentive for a right-wing Israeli government heading to elections is to never say one positive word about the PA, and where many American politicians and Jewish groups do not want to be caught on the record as defending aid to the Palestinians in any way while the Trump administration wages diplomatic war on Abbas, the caricatured narrative spreads unopposed like wildfire.

And thus you have Paul making the critical error of thinking that eliminating security assistance to the PA will somehow benefit Israel’s security, and insisting that doing so will create the conditions in which Israel will need less security assistance rather than more. In fact, eliminating the relatively paltry $35 million in security assistance to the PA security forces will end up costing Israel orders of magnitude more if the result is that the PA security apparatus disappears or stops its coordination with Israel, forcing Israel to assume the enormous costs of policing the entire West Bank. Paul has this relationship exactly backwards, yet so far the criticism he is receiving is centered around his stance on aid to Israel solely, rather than the intimately related aid to the Palestinians. This, of course, comes on the heels of the White House already blowing up virtually all American aid to the West Bank and Gaza with nary a peep from folks on the right who privately know better but are content to read the political – rather than policy – tealeaves.

The political effects of this are not limited to the right. The active dissembling and dishonesty about what the PA is and what it isn’t and the reluctance of people who know better to call it out is going to have a backlash on the left in the form of a mirror image caricature of Israel. After all, if the right is going to insist that the PA is an unrepentant terrorist gang that does nothing but erode Israel’s security, the response on the left is going to be that Israel is subjecting the Palestinians to an apartheid existence because it is a serial human rights abuser with no legitimate security concerns. It is going to encourage the extremes on both sides, and lead to bad policy all around.

Anyone who cares about Israel should be willing to have the honest conversation about the PA, and should be willing to have it in the open. It should not be politically dangerous to make the point that the PA’s existence helps Israel’s security rather than harms it. It should not be politically dangerous to stand up for aid to the Palestinians, not only because it is the humanitarian thing to do but because it is the right thing to do for Israel as well. When people, against their better judgment, fail to explain to their constituencies the link between Israeli and Palestinian security, they are encouraging irresponsible and uneducated responses like Paul’s that do Israel no favors.

Airbnb Breaks the BDS Seal

It is difficult to assess whether Airbnb’s announcement on Monday that it is going to delist rentals located in West Bank settlements is akin to the first shot fired at Lexington or to the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. This could be the beginning of a wave of success for the heretofore ineffectual BDS movement, or it could be a quick demonstration of how BDS is fated to fail. Only time will tell, but irrespective of the practical implications in the near term of Airbnb’s settlement boycott, there are a few lessons to be gleaned from the fact that Airbnb even proceeded down this path.

My hunch is that Airbnb’s move is not going to herald a forthcoming stream of copycat announcements from other companies who do business in the West Bank. In fact, I would be surprised if Airbnb does not reverse itself in relatively short order. For starters, Airbnb does not sound like it has made the decision to remove West Bank settlement listings in a confident manner. By its own admission, the company “struggled” and “wrestled” over what to do – reportedly for years – and Airbnb’s statement reads like something written by an agonized teenager who has decided to break up with his girlfriend because his friends convinced him that he should but who might change his mind after a few lonely Saturday nights. More saliently, Airbnb is going to come under enormous pressure from pro-Israel activists, the Israeli government, and various American federal and state officials. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin has already declared his intention to seek a new tax targeting Airbnb, along with measures to limit Airbnb’s activities in Israel and to promote alternative options for people seeking short term rentals. Undoubtedly members of Congress will weigh in on the issue, and twenty-five states have anti-BDS laws on the books that may allow sanctions on Airbnb for its new policy. If Airbnb was swayed after years of lobbying from groups seeking to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, it is quickly going to see that the political pressure that the other side brings to bear will be far more difficult to withstand.

I do not support governmental or corporate boycotts of Israelis, no matter where they are, so my own rooting interest is for Airbnb to reverse course. But whether or not Airbnb caves is somewhat beside the point. The critical takeaway here is that by continuing to conflate Israel and the West Bank when it comes to boycotts but quite obviously maintaining separate policies on both sides of the Green Line in other respects, the Israeli government is putting the entire enterprise at risk. It is dumbfounding to see Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan - Israel’s Inspector Clouseau, whose efforts to police thought are anything but strategic – declare following Airbnb’s decision that “there is no differentiation between this part or that part of the State of Israel,” as if the entire world does not know that Israel has different governing authorities for its pre-1967 territory and the West Bank. Insisting again and again that Tekoa is no different than Tel Aviv is not going to get skeptical parties to treat the former like the latter, but is rather going to result in those parties doing the opposite. If Israel is going to behave like its recognized territory is the same as the West Bank, despite the fact that it maintains the distinction between the two in Israeli law, then anyone who can be talked into boycotting only West Bank settlements will be easily talked into boycotting everything.

A company like Airbnb is taking what it sees as the logically fair compromise route, as illogical and unfair as that seems to many of Israel’s staunchest defenders. It is being pressured to boycott Israel entirely because of its policies in the West Bank, and so it takes a midrange approach that seeks to isolate any punitive measures solely to the territory that is problematic. If Israel is willing to go to figurative war to defend the principle that settlements and the rest of Israel are inseparable, then the logical next step for a company that is uncomfortable with doing business in the settlements is to quickly extend that discomfort to the rest of the territory that the Israel government declares is indistinguishable from settlements. That is how you take a potential threat against the settlements and expand it to encompass all of Israel. I am under no illusion that the BDS movement itself limits its boycott calls to the West Bank, but if companies inclined to limit their own boycotts to the West Bank are being told both by BDS supporters and by the Israeli government to treat all of the territory between the river and the sea identically, then it isn’t hard to see what will soon follow.

This episode also demonstrates why the Israeli government’s thinking about the two-state solution is backwards. Prime Minister Netanyahu has excised any mention of two states from his lexicon, while ministers to his right such as Naftali Bennett speak about the concept of two states as an actual threat to Israel. But the two-state solution is one of Israel’s greatest strategic assets, and a government that was truly concerned about BDS would quickly understand why. So long as Israel appears committed to the two-state concept in a real and tangible way, any moves to boycott Israel or even just the settlements will fall flat. Governments and companies just want some demonstration of Israel’s desire to not permanently occupy the West Bank, some evidence that it is looking for a way out, some sign that it is hampered by circumstances rather than by ideology. Maintaining even the legal fiction of support for two states redounds to Israel’s benefit, and were anyone to genuinely believe that this government was committed to that concept, even limited boycotts that only target settlements would not go very far. Instead, the prime minister brags about his record of standing up to the most intense pressure imaginable to lessen Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while his wannabe future defense minister tells anyone who will listen that he will annex Area C and end any ambiguity over its future status. This is precisely how one provides oxygen to a spark of settlement boycotting rather than snuffing it out. A government that does not understand the basic fact that acceptance of a two-state solution is an asset rather than a liability is one that will constantly be flummoxed by Israel’s opponents.

Israel's Political Balagan

While Israel is accustomed to political upheaval, this week was unusual even by Israeli standards. It began with a botched operation in Gaza and with southern Israel blanketed with Hamas rockets, continued with an unusual Jerusalem mayoral election, and culminated with Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister and the unofficial kickoff of the next Knesset election campaign. While not all of these events are directly related, they are linked in that they will all determine to a large degree the composition and direction of the next government.

The most straightforward event to analyze is the fighting in Gaza, as it followed a familiar pattern that has been repeating since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Prime Minister Netanyahu has held fast to a number of principles related to Gaza since taking the helm of the Israeli government in spring 2009 on the heels of Operation Cast Lead, with the two predominant ones being that he does not want to reverse Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and he also does not want to topple Hamas. Going back into Gaza, forcibly removing Hamas from power, and remaining as an active occupying force would cost Israel enormously in blood and treasure, and Netanyahu is neither alone nor irresponsible in his desire to avoid this scenario. In addition to being costly, doing so would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which would take over Gaza following Israel doing the hard work of rooting out Hamas, and Netanyahu prefers a weakened PA in the West Bank with no foothold in Gaza as it keeps the Palestinians divided and preoccupied with infighting. This explains why Gaza policy remains in a holding pattern that does not change irrespective of whether it is quiet, whether there are violent riots taking place along the border fence, or whether there are hundreds of rockets launched at Israel. No matter what hawkish words come out of Netanyahu’s mouth, he has diligently worked hard to maintain the status quo.

Hamas does not want a large-scale escalation either, which sounds strange after Monday, when more rockets and mortars were fired at Israel than on any other single day since Hamas took over Gaza. But it becomes clearer when setting aside the number of rockets and looking instead at their location. If Hamas was looking to spark something larger and was not afraid of a massive IDF response, it would have shot rockets at Tel Aviv, blanketed Be’er Sheva, and tried to shut down Ben Gurion Airport as it did in 2014. Israel and Hamas are locked into a tit-for-tat game, where each side demonstrates that it is responding to the other, but neither side wants to upend the entire chess board by flinging it off the table.

Netanyahu’s relative cautious response, where he did what he could to avoid an all-out war partially by allowing hours of debate inside the security cabinet without actually calling a vote on whether to escalate or accept a ceasefire, is in my view the responsible course of action. But it activated a predictable and cynical political response, not only from the opposition but from his own coalition partners. Bennett, who for months has been taunting Lieberman over his alleged timidity to use overwhelming force in Gaza, immediately made it clear that he was not in favor of a ceasefire and wants to see Hamas pay a steeper price. Lieberman upped the ante by not only expressing his extreme displeasure at the turn of events – a consistent theme of his for weeks as he has argued against any type of accommodation with Hamas – but by resigning his post as defense minister and quitting the coalition.

As Netanyahu’s ministers rushed to criticize him on security from his right flank, so too did opposition figures such as Zionist Union chief Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid. In Bennett and Lieberman’s cases, they have served in a security cabinet that has heard repeated warnings from the IDF professionals about the folly of reoccupying Gaza and know that it won’t and shouldn’t be done, but want to capitalize on unhappiness on the right with Netanyahu’s typical risk aversion. In Gabbay and Lapid’s cases, they have not put forth actual suggestions of how they would specifically do things differently, but are happy to voice nebulous criticisms about Netanyahu giving in to terror and selling out the residents of southern Israel. This all combines for a campaign season ahead in which nearly all politicians – left, right, and center – try to assert that they will be toughest on Gaza, ramp up the rhetoric, and play to the genuine populist anger that is sweeping through the ranks of right leaning Israelis after months of incendiary kites and balloons, breaches of the Gaza border fence, and now rockets. Whatever momentum was building in favor of an alternate approach to Gaza that seeks to ease the humanitarian crisis, rebuild Gaza’s economy, lower the temperature and appetite for armed conflict as a response to Israel, and bring the PA back to Gaza, is now going to be dead in the water until the end of the election campaign.

Far more overlooked but perhaps even more important for national political trends was the Jerusalem municipal election on Tuesday, in which Moshe Lion beat out Ofer Berkovitch. Lion was backed by Shas, Degel HaTorah (the non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredi party), Bayit Yehudi, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu: in other words, a bizarre alliance of Mizrahi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionists, and militantly secular Russians. This would ordinarily mean an electoral cakewalk in Jerusalem, but Berkovitch – who was the secular candidate – was the beneficiary of a split within the Haredi world, where the Hasidic Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael decided to tell its voters that they were free to vote for whomever they wanted as revenge for Degel HaTorah not supporting the Hasidic candidate in the first round. Berkovitch was also able to capitalize on the fact that a candidate backed by the strange bedfellows of Aryeh Deri and Lieberman, who are united by nothing more than their reputations for corruption, is one who is not going to be a paragon of good or transparent governance. But the biggest takeaway is not that Lion ultimately won; it is rather that his win was relatively close, and that it is a harbinger of a potential earthquake in Haredi politics.

The split between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredim has been festering for awhile over competition for resources and which wing should have a greater say than the other. It has also been magnified by a general weakening of rabbinic authority in political matters among Haredi voters, who can no longer be relied upon to vote in seamless blocs. If the split in the Jerusalem municipal elections between Degel HatTorah and Agudat Yisrael – which have run together as UTJ in national elections since 1992 – ends up replicating itself on a national level, while Haredi voters in larger numbers generally decide that they will go their own way, it will transform Israeli coalition politics even more than the competition between Likud, Bayit Yehudi, and Yisrael Beiteinu over who can capture the largest share of right-wing voters. The Haredi parties have been Netanyahu’s most stalwart and in some ways easiest political partners, and if a split into multiple parties and more independent voting means that not all of them make the Knesset threshold, then Netanyahu is going to have a far bigger headache in constructing his next government than in trying to keep both Bennett and Lieberman happy when only one of them can occupy the Defense Ministry.

What Does A Democratic House Mean For Israel?

Much of the talk this election season about a new crop of Democrats who hold views on Israel that run the gamut from skeptical to hostile focused on politicians who are about to become newly minted House members. And so Democratic control of the House will undoubtedly spark angst in some quarters. For a variety of reasons, this angst will be misplaced. A Democratic-controlled House is not going to mean a raft of anti-Israel legislation or even a spate of anti-Israel invective; the fact is that the Democratic Party remains strongly pro-Israel despite some new discordant notes along the edges. If anything, the greatest impact on Israel as a result of the shift in control in the House is going to come not from Congressional Democrats, but from President Trump.

There is no question that Israel is now a partisan issue in a way that it was not in the past. It has become an election issue largely because Republicans believe it to be politically advantageous to them to portray Democrats as anti-Israel BDS supporters, whether the charges are warranted – which in some cases they are – or not. The Democratic response to these charges, however, has not been to launch a debate over Israel’s benefit as an ally or to defend alleged anti-Israel positions, but to argue that Democratic candidates are just as supportive of Israel as their Republican opponents. Two of the most high-profile races this cycle involving dynamic progressive Democrats in which Israel became a campaign issue – the gubernatorial race in Florida and the Senate race in Texas – saw Democrats Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke rejecting the anti-Israel charge entirely rather than leaning into it. The anti-Israel charge also did not stick across the board with the constituency it was targeted toward, as 79 percent of Jewish voters cast their Congressional ballots for Democrats. There is a predictive lesson here for how Democrats want to talk about Israel, and it is not that Democrats view Israel-bashing as a winning campaign strategy.

This is even more so the case when looking at House Democrats and how they want to govern. The leadership of the party has as strong pro-Israel bonafides as anyone; not even Sheldon Adelson would accuse once and future Majority Leader Steny Hoyer or incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of wavering on their support for Israel. House Democrats do not want to run against Israel and do not want to pick high-profile fights on Israel-related issues. They do not support BDS, are not looking to cut military aid to Israel, and are not going to put themselves in the position of having to take controversial votes on Israel-related issues that are going to come back and bite them down the road. The few Democrats for whom this is not the case are all backbenchers whose focus is on local issues. No matter how galling Ilhan Omar’s tweets and comments about Israel are, Israel is nowhere near the top of her list of priorities, and the greatest possible extent of her influence on Israel issues in this Congress would be as the most junior majority member on a relevant committee. Now that they have the power to set the legislative agenda, expect House Democratic leaders to bundle votes on Israel issues with other broadly popular items and to try and create an environment in which Israel is minimized as a campaign issue in 2020 for the party writ large.

The one area where a Democratic House may be more vocal on pushing back against the Republican agenda on Israel is with the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians. Nearly all Democrats support a two-state solution and realize that forcing the Palestinian Authority’s collapse is a recipe for disaster not only on the two-state front but also for Israel’s security. The White House has demonstrated over the past year that it has the power to do what it wants on funding issues in the West Bank and Gaza irrespective of the money that has been appropriated by Congress. But I expect Democrats to use their committee perches to revisit these issues and point out the dangers of the Trump administration’s approach more forcefully. Democrats are in a position to do this in a smart way, by making the distinction between measures that are intended to lead to reform like the Taylor Force Act, and measures that are intended to make Palestinians suffer and risk causing a backlash like ending funding for East Jerusalem hospitals or shutting down USAID in the West Bank and Gaza entirely. If House Democrats are also able to shine a spotlight on these issues in a way that demonstrates why the Trump approach is hurting Israel, they can be effective in crafting a pro-Israel message that takes Israeli security seriously while preserving American leverage with the Palestinians and maintaining long-standing U.S. goals in the region.

With all the speculation about what a Democratic House will do with regard to Israel, people are in some ways missing the real story. Trump’s ability to execute domestic policies with effectively zero oversight or pushback is now over. Much as previous presidents have focused on foreign policy because it is the area where they constitutionally and structurally have the most freedom and power to operate unencumbered, Trump is soon going to realize the same thing. As the House squeezes what should have been four years of investigations into two and Trump becomes more boxed in, he is likely to start paying more attention to what is going on around the globe. As it is, he has already placed a high priority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and because it is such a shiny brass ring, I expect that he is going to make an even bigger push to secure his ultimate deal as he is hemmed in on his domestic priorities. The fact is that aside from appropriations, Congress does not have much of an impactful role on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on Israel issues more broadly, and the way House Democrats deal with Israel is going to be impacted more by the next campaign than it is by the issues themselves. But the fact that they are in power and will be grinding Trump’s agenda to a halt means that the White House’s attention to Israel is about to go way up, and if Trump’s track record so far is indicative of what is to come, expect some more upheaval on the road ahead.


Thoughts In The Wake Of Pittsburgh

The massacre of Jews sitting in a Pittsburgh shul on Shabbat morning has been an emotionally searing experience for American Jews, me included. Tablet’s Alana Newhouse smartly noted how aninut – the stage in Jewish law that reigns from the time of death to burial – is marked by the disruption of orderly thinking. Now that funerals for the victims have begun, it is time to take stock of what happened and what can be gleaned from the starkest display of anti-Semitism in American history. I’m not sure that my thinking is quite orderly yet, so what follows are three broad observations that are related to each other only by the event that precipitated them.

The first has to do with incitement, which I had been thinking about in the context of domestic terrorism before the Tree of Life attack. One of the most frustrating things about the Trump era is that having a balanced and honest conversation about President Trump is nearly impossible given the ferocity of people’s feelings about him, both positive and negative. I do not exempt myself from this critique; I suspect that my feelings about the president are evident if you read this column every week. If you follow me on Twitter, they are glaringly clear. But I still think it is important to assess Trump’s responsibility or lack thereof for what took place in Squirrel Hill in as objective a manner as possible, and it turns out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides just such a template.

Robert Bowers is a virulent anti-Semite. His anti-Semitism was not created by Trump, and neither was his desire to kill Jews. Anti-Semites do not need excuses, and it is dangerous and unwise to mitigate their agency by assigning the blame for their actions to anyone else. It is also the case that many American Jews have felt a distinct feeling of discomfort since Trump assumed the presidency, particularly since his infamous “very fine people on both sides” comment about neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and menaced synagogue worshippers on another unsettling Shabbat morning. What are we to make of the fact that Trump has never explicitly condoned anti-Semitism, and has in fact explicitly condemned it on multiple occasions, yet both Jews and white supremacists believe that he is winking and nodding in approval to anti-Semitism in a variety of ways?

One of the things for which Israelis and American Jews take Mahmoud Abbas to task most often is incitement. Abbas has never personally taken up arms against the Jewish state or its citizens, and does not call for terrorist attacks directed at Israelis. But when he praises the actions of those who do, or engages in Holocaust denial, or rejects the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, we call him out for inciting violence. It does not mean that Abbas is a terrorist and that he is directly responsible for the actions of Palestinians who commit terrorist attacks, but it means that he helps foster an environment in which such attacks flourish. His sometime condemnations of particularly heinous terror attacks ring hollow given the covert messages he sends time and again that appear to glorify targeting Israelis.

The more I have thought about it, the more I find this framework useful for evaluating Trump in the wake of the Pittsburgh attacks. I do not think that Trump is an anti-Semite, and he certainly has not urged attacks against Jews. He is not responsible for Bowers, and he is not responsible for eleven new Jewish martyrs. But his incitement has fostered the environment that makes targeting Jews seem easier and more urgent for the anti-Semites who already hate us. Every time he praises white supremacists under the guise of nationalism, every time he approvingly tweets conspiracy theories that just happen to disproportionately involve Jews and anti-Semitic tropes, every time he defends Confederate “values” and ideals, and every time he glorifies violence against his perceived enemies, he makes this country more dangerous for us. The fact that Bowers finds Trump to be insufficiently nationalist is only a defense if you accept that Hamas’s tarring of Abbas as an Israeli collaborator makes him a Zionist, and neither is it exculpatory to argue that Trump is too clueless to be doing any of this purposely. Trump’s incitement has created an environment in which it has been permissive to attack journalists, permissive to send bombs to political opponents, and now permissive to gun down Jews at prayer.

If you take incitement seriously in the Palestinian context, then take it seriously in this one too, and if you dismiss it as irrelevant in the Palestinian context, then don’t blame Trump as the cause of Jewish deaths. My own view is that words matter, both here and there, and I certainly hold Trump partially responsible for the fact that for the first time in my life, I feel like a Jew in America rather than like an American Jew.


Many Israelis remain hurt and angry with American Jews for their support of the Iran deal. They viewed it as making Israel less safe rather than more, and they did not want to hear American Jews explain to them why they believed otherwise. They still feel a sense of betrayal that American Jews did not have their backs, and do not understand why American Jews supported President Obama despite the depth of Israeli antipathy toward him as a result of policies that they saw as putting Israel at risk. When American Jews said that Obama shared their values and their worldview, Israelis responded with, “what about us?”

We have now arrived at the mirror image of the Iran deal. Many American Jews are hurt and angry over Israeli support for Trump, viewing Trump as not only being out of line with their own values but as making them less safe. Israelis, on the other hand, see Trump as a great friend to Israel, and do not understand why American Jews feel such revulsion toward him. Israelis wanted American Jews to have their backs and respect their own conclusions about what would make Israel safer and more secure, so granting that most of them feel that American Jews let them down, what is the obligation now of Israelis to put their own feelings aside out of respect for the vast majority of American Jews? Is it Ron Dermer’s job to go on American television and mount a full-throated defense of Trump, or should he at minimum stay neutral given the conviction in many quarters of American Jewry that Trump is fostering a permissive atmosphere for anti-Semitism? I don’t know the answer to this question, and since I did not support the Iran deal I may be the wrong person to even address it, but it is worth thinking about.


I took Avi Gabbay to task in the Forward for his insulting and ahistorical suggestion that American Jews should now make aliyah, so I do not need to rehash my jeremiad here. But I do want to add something that I did not write about in that piece about American Judaism. The American Jewish project has never felt like a temporary one that is bound to be disrupted, or that is in a holding pattern until American Jews inevitably move to Israel. It is its own entity, and should be taken seriously as such. Now more than ever, it is critical to fight for it, to stand up for it, to make clear that the terror in Pittsburgh will be a tragic blip rather than the new normal.

On Monday evening, I made my way to the solidarity and prayer vigil at Adas Israel Congregation organized by the JCRC of Greater Washington, but I never got close to the door. I walked nearly half a mile down Porter Street past a throng of people waiting in line, finally getting to the end and then making my way back up toward the synagogue. With nearly 4,000 people stretching the building to its capacity to hear speeches and prayers from politicians, community leaders, and religious leaders, I was one of the hundreds who packed the steps and plaza out front once the building had filled up and another impromptu vigil was organized on the spot.

It was one of the most emotionally moving experiences I have had, and it was not because the speeches were particularly inspiring or because the prayers held particularly special meaning. It was because thousands of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, showed up and waited in the cold and weren’t deterred when space ran out, for an event that made it clear just how much of a home we Jews have in America. We do not need to worry about our political leaders supporting us, or hiding our Judaism from our neighbors, or thinking about acquiring a foreign passport for when the day comes when we will have to run. Despite the new feeling of discomfort that many of us are experiencing for the first time, there is no question that those who want to do us harm are a small and largely-shunned minority. So let’s remember what a unique situation we enjoy in the annals of Jewish history, and work to make sure that the American Jewish experience continues to grow and remain one of the poles of world Jewry. Let’s continue to develop an American Judaism that is our own, and ensure that no American Jew ever makes aliyah out of need rather than out of desire. Let’s continue to be unapologetic American Jews.

The Canary In The Coal Mine For Israel and Jordan

Jordan caused a stir in Israel this week with its announcement that it would not be renewing an annex to the peace treaty between the two countries that expires next year on the treaty’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Contrary to the breathless and misleading headlines, Jordan is not canceling part of the peace treaty; the peace treaty itself remains in full effect. But while the practical implications of this move are minimal, it is a warning sign of real danger ahead for Israel-Jordan relations, and Israel should do what it can to shore up the relationship before things get off the rails.

The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty contains two annexes that grant Israel a 25 year lease to two agricultural areas opposite Naharayim and Tzofar. The leases automatically renew unless one side gives notice that it wishes to terminate these annexes, which is what Jordan did this week. The terms of the annexes now require talks between the two parties over their renewal, but the chances that Jordan changes its mind are somewhere between slim and non-existent. The end of this particular lease arrangement is not in itself a big deal and should not be blown out of proportion, but neither should it be dismissed out of hand. It is a reflection of political pressures in Jordan and enormous frustration with the Israeli government that extends from ordinary Jordanians up to the royal court.

Despite the peace treaty and the extensive cooperation between Israel and Jordan on everything from security to water to energy, Israel is deeply unpopular in Jordan and is a constant hot-button issue in Jordanian domestic politics. Many Jordanians want to cancel the peace treaty with Israel entirely, and there have been protests in Jordan against the treaty and cooperation with Israel more generally. Jordanians have been protesting over economic issues for months, including protests over the summer against a new tax bill that brought down the prime minister, so ending the lease arrangement is a political no-brainer. It lets King Abdullah do something that has wall-to-wall support, distracts from pressing economic problems, and doesn’t actually impact the real coordination between Israel and Jordan on things that matter far more to both sides.

It also lets the king reassert Jordanian sovereignty against perceived Israeli encroachment in the wake of the shooting at the Israeli embassy in Amman in July 2017, where an Israeli guard killed two Jordanians following an attempt to stab him. The return of the guard to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public embrace of him – both figuratively and literally, as photos of Netanyahu hugging the guard blanketed media in both countries – created a diplomatic rift that was not resolved until this past January, when Israel formally apologized. In Jordanians’ eyes, Israel got away not only with killing an innocent Jordanian bystander, but then compounded the insult by whisking the man who pulled the trigger out of Jordan and treating him to a hero’s welcome after promising not to do so, and by declining to prosecute him in Israel. Jordanians understandably view this as trampling on their sovereignty, and eliminating an arrangement that allows Israelis to come and go on sovereign Jordanian territory is viewed as a punishment that goes toward righting a similar wrong.

The danger here though is that this move will not be an isolated one. Cooperation between Jordan and Israel is too important to Jordan for the king to put the big ticket items at real risk. Jordan relies on Israel to help maintain internal security through intelligence sharing, for natural gas already flowing from the Tamar field and more that will come from Leviathan through a new pipeline being built, and for water. It is in neither side’s interest to disrupt these arrangements, and up until now the Jordanian royal court and the government have withstood all kinds of political pressure inside Jordan to cut back on cooperation with Israel. What makes the end of the agricultural leases more significant than they appear at first glance is that the campaign inside Jordan to end them is viewed as a first step toward ending a number of other agreements as well, and absent some shifts in Israeli behavior to provide Jordan with political cover, the momentum to revisit other deals is going to grow.

A majority of Jordanian MPs signed a petition last spring demanding that the lease arrangement not be renewed. The same majority of MPs are also calling for Jordan to pull out of the deal to buy Israeli natural gas. While that eventuality is not realistic now, it is only because the Egyptian natural gas industry is in a relatively sad state, which is what led Jordan to turn to Israel in the first place after previously buying gas from Egypt. Once Egypt gets its Zohr field up and running, it will be easier for Jordan to increase its purchases of Egyptian gas and actually contemplate pulling out of the Leviathan deal with Israel. Not only would this be bad for bilateral relations, it would be a serious blow to Israeli gas producers, as there are few remaining options for Leviathan exports. None of this is helped along by Jordan’s anger at Israel for delaying implementation of the Red-Dead agreement between the two sides and that is supposed to, among other things, allow Jordan to buy more water from the Kinneret to meet its potable water needs. In other words, Israel assumes that nothing will disrupt its various agreements with Jordan, and that is almost certainly true about the peace treaty, but some of the other arrangements are coming under growing stress and should not be taken for granted.

It is critical to understand that states often do things that appear to be self-defeating because they need to account for domestic political pressures. This is even more acute in places that are facing serious and structural economic problems. Israel would be wise to take Jordanian domestic politics into account and act now to take steps that will relieve some of this pressure. This includes moving on the Red-Dead project rather than stalling, playing down the impact and importance of the end of the agricultural leases, and generally making it easier for Jordanians to see the benefit of cooperation with Israel. Otherwise, Israel may find that its fundamental relationship with Jordan begins to die a death of a thousand small cuts.

Why Jamal Khashoggi Matters For Israel

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has dominated news since Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, never to be seen again. Khashoggi was a journalist and former government adviser who had been living in exile in the U.S. as a gadfly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. If the reporting is to be believed, his criticism of MBS was too much for the Saudi regime to handle. Despite a past of supporting Muslim Brotherhood movements and political Islam, Khashoggi was not particularly focused on Israel. But the Israeli government should be paying close attention to the Khashoggi story since there will be ramifications for Israel that center around the Trump administration’s relationship with MBS and the Saudi regime, and one important lesson that from the incident that Israel should absorb.

It is unclear what the fallout from the Khashoggi affair will be on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. President Trump has swung back and forth from initially dismissing the allegations and saying that he wasn’t going to put arms deals at risk, to stating that there would be serious consequences for Saudi Arabia should the story of Khashoggi’s murder prove true, to then blaming hypothetical “rogue killers” inside the consulate. But while the White House appears to want to put this episode behind it as quickly as possible, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are not nearly as eager to give Saudi Arabia or MBS a free pass. Crafting an entire Middle East policy around Saudi Arabia as the linchpin to everything from containing Iran in the aftermath of pulling out of the JCPOA to overseeing Israeli-Palestinian peace has now become much harder.

What this means for Israel is that the dream of an American peace initiative entirely weighted in Israel’s favor that MBS would strongarm the Palestinians into accepting – always a long shot at best – has now completely dissipated. It should have been clear from the outset that MBS could not deliver Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians as easily as promised, and should have been beyond dispute following his father King Salman’s very public repudiation this summer of his son’s position on Jerusalem and the Palestinians. But even if the White House still clings to the fantasy that MBS and Jared Kushner can cook up a deal to remake the Middle East over late night chats in Washington and Riyadh, it would be foolhardy to be seen as outsourcing salesmanship for the ultimate deal to the international community’s current pariah of the month. To the extent that the Trump administration peace plan hinged on Saudi Arabia, that will now have to be shelved.

Furthermore, even if the White House still wanted MBS to run point for its plan to get the Palestinians on board, the Saudi prince is no longer in a position to agree. MBS has done much to upset Saudi business and religious elites, which in part explains his resort to increasingly extensive and brutish authoritarian measures to keep people in line and public dissent to a minimum. There is simply no way in the current environment, as his behavior is under worldwide scrutiny and inviting criticism from all corners while governments and high-profile figures pull out of his second annual investment conference, that he can take the unpopular move of administering tough love to the Palestinians. MBS’s play to lean on Abbas was the move of an overly confident ruler, and there is no rational reason for MBS to currently display his previous level of brash confidence.

There is a lesson in here for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel that goes beyond the Trump peace initiative. More than any current world leader, MBS had a blank check from the White House that was repeatedly and publicly telegraphed. Nothing that MBS did was too far for Trump, whether it was holding Saudi businessmen hostage in a blatant shakedown; threatening our immediate neighbor, ally, and trading partner Canada; instituting a blockade of Qatar, whose foreign policy is problematic to put it charitably but also hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East; jailing Saudi civil society activists; or piling up shocking numbers of civilian casualties in Yemen in a war MBS launched. Not only did Trump not criticize MBS or even quietly urge restraint, in most of these instances he went out of his way to publicly back him. This included tweeting that he had “great confidence” in MBS during the infamous Ritz Carlton shakedown, and the administration certifying just last month that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are working to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, a claim that beggars belief.

In light of the above, MBS and the Saudi regime would have no reason to expect blowback from the U.S. for anything, and certainly not for killing a Saudi citizen thousands of miles away from American soil. The problem is that this type of hubris often leads to bad miscalculations, which is precisely what appears to have happened with Khashoggi. The problem is compounded by the Saudi assumption that they had carte blanche from Trump and that every other actor could be ignored, and the fact that the White House does not wield absolute control over how the U.S. responds means that the damage that has been done is not so easily or quickly reversible.

The only other leader who has been treated by the White House in a similar fashion has been Netanyahu. This is not to suggest any equivalence between him and MBS, who aside from being far more reckless and brazen is an unelected despot. But Israel is prone to the same reading that as far as the U.S. is concerned, it can do pretty much anything it likes and that Trump will support it. This may be true, but the lesson from the Khashoggi affair is that tripwires can be hard to spot and that the White House is not the only game in town. Even this administration may be forced at some point to contend with Israeli overreach in some form, and while it is not going to be anything as viscerally brutal as Khashoggi’s alleged end, every government – including Jerusalem – should keep in mind that their stock in Washington can easily plummet with one badly timed and ill-conceived move.

The Growing Gap Between Politicians and Experts

On Monday, Israel’s leading think tank officially joined the chorus of those who are urging separation from the Palestinians as the only way to maintain Israel as Jewish, democratic and secure. The Institute for National Security Studies, led by former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, released a 121 page report warning of the dangers of Israel becoming a binational state and urging independent measures in the West Bank to improve conditions for Palestinians immediately and preserve the two-state option down the road. The proposal formally brings INSS in line with other military and security experts, most notably the 285 retired generals who comprise Commanders for Israel’s Security and called for similar but more wide-ranging steps in 2016. It demonstrates that there is a hardening consensus about what Israel should be doing to safeguard its interests and what those interests actually are. The tragedy in this is that as more people are joining this consensus, the political messages emanating from the top in both Israel and the U.S. are pointing in entirely different directions.

As Yadlin pointed out in his public comments when presenting the report, Israelis are overwhelmingly in favor of separating from the Palestinians. It is not hard to discern why; they fundamentally understand that doing so is necessary to preserve Zionism as a democratic movement that upholds Jewish sovereignty in a Jewish homeland. This is an issue that unites people across the spectrum from left of center to right of center, and goes beyond more loaded terms such as peace process or two-state solution. Israelis are not quite sure what the final arrangement should look like, but they know that it should involve Israelis in one place and Palestinians in another, each free to run their own affairs independent of the other. The basic contours of this were laid out by CIS, and it is unsurprising that INSS experts landed on the same formula of continuing to build in the settlement blocs while freezing building beyond it, improving the Palestinian economy and freedom of movement in most of the West Bank, and not allowing a lack of negotiations to hamstring Israel’s ability to do anything.

INSS should be commended for standing up for Zionism not only as a specific political vision but also as an activist movement that does not allow others to hold Israel’s future hostage. Getting more prominent voices on board with this vision, including former IDF chiefs of staff Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Benny Gantz, will also serve to inoculate against attempts to falsely characterize what this vision and program entail. For instance, Jonathan Tobin incorrectly alleged last week that CIS generals calling for similar moves want to “withdraw from the West Bank as soon as possible, and view the Palestinians’ refusal to seriously negotiate or to accept past offers of statehood as irrelevant.” This despite the fact that the CIS and INSS plans do not call for the withdrawal of one soldier, the removal of one settler, or the dismantling of one brick from a settlement, and that both purposely advocate the measures they do precisely because they view negotiations with the Palestinians at the moment as a fruitless exercise. The more that prominent Israeli voices urge independent steps to preserve a two-state option, the less that single state proponents and annexationists will be able to engage in demagoguery and outright falsehoods.

While a consensus may be solidifying among Israelis, the problem is that two influential actors have still not bought into this vision, and are making Israel’s dilemma worse. On one side is President Trump, who insists on forcing the two sides together artificially in pursuit of “the ultimate deal,” regardless of the ramifications. On the other side is Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose actions in the West Bank indicate that he does not accept that preserving the two-state option should be of paramount concern. While neither Trump nor Netanyahu generally shows a proclivity for deferring to outside experts, in this case their contrary instincts are leading to disaster despite the warning signs that are flashing all over the place.

Trump’s desire to restart negotiations may lead to short and medium term problems – failed rounds of negotiations inevitably erode the trust between the two parties even further and lead to hardened and more extreme positions on both sides – but there is only so much damage that a policy of trying to restart negotiations can do. Netanyahu’s resistance to taking steps toward separation from the Palestinians and preserving a viable two-state option, however, falls into a completely different category. It is in Netanyahu’s power to doom the two-state option and permanently sandbag a separation agenda, and while he has so far prevented this from happening by shelving any annexation bills that have come before the Knesset, nobody should count on this continuing indefinitely. But even if Netanyahu is willing to stand with his finger in the dike, his refusal to acknowledge that Israeli foreign and security policy experts are correct in their diagnosis of what must be done now to effect an eventual separation will cause damage. The rhetoric on the right in Israel surrounding this issue already has a populist tinge, centering on a refrain that the same experts that created a mess in Gaza now want to replicate that mess in the West Bank. Never mind the fact that nobody is calling for a unilateral West Bank withdrawal; much as populism in the U.S. is often focused on the messengers rather than the message, the fact that Netanyahu is willing to ride a populist wave on this issue as expert opinion across the political spectrum is moving elsewhere is a recipe for cementing opposition to separation going forward.

The reason that INSS, CIS, and other people and institutions who best understand Israel’s security situation advocate similar paths to avoid the morass ahead is because it is a cautious policy that minimizes risks and learns from previous mistakes. Were the Israeli government to get on board as well, there would be an opportunity to set Israel on a more sustainable course that will require less drastic measures in the future.